Satyajit Ray made his first Hindi feature film, Shatranj Ke Khiladi (internationally released as The Chess Players), in 1977. The film went on to become a landmark in the history of Indian cinema. It is based on Munshi Premchand’s short story of the same name. The story is set in the backdrop of the East India Company’s forceful colonization of India. In 1856, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah rules the land of Awadh. He is more fond of art and culture rather than of governance and statesmanship.
Two noblemen, named Mirza Sajjad Ali and Mir Roshan Ali, live in his state. They are devoted to the game of chess. They are so engrossed in the game of strategy that they become utterly ignorant to the broader issues in their lives, such as unhappy wives and the British taking over their city.
Ray made extensive revisions to Premchand’s original story, most of which were in the form of contexts. The film opens with a narrative (by none other than Mr. Amitabh Bachchan) that describes the socio-political situation in Lucknow under the reign of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah (played by Amjad Khan).
Rich or poor, young or old, everyone is savoring in the delights of living a luxurious life. The king of Awadh is a sophisticated man. He has greater inclination towards various art forms, than for statesmanship and governance. He drowns himself in the joys of life and leaves the operations of the state to his trustworthy and devoted prime minister.
Lord Dalhousie, Governor General of British India back then, takes advantage of this situation. He orders a cunning military officer named General James Outram (Richard Attenborough) to design and conduct the annexation of the state. If successful, this will add another bead to the British Empire’s string of politically significant acquisitions in the country.
However, the film’s true narrative is about two opulent noblemen – Mirza Sajjad Ali (Sanjeev Kumar) and Mir Roshan Ali (Syed Jaffrey), from Lucknow. Both of them are so immersed in the game of chess that they fail to take notice of their beloved city falling prey to British military forces.
The film alternates between these two narratives, both of them involving a deft game of strategy. We see sophistication turning into lethal addictions, eventually leading to one’s fall.
The beauty of Shatranj Ke Khiladi
Satyajit Ray isn’t regarded as one of the best directors of last century just because of his visually stunning films. It’s difficult to imagine that the director of this work is someone who, according to his own admission, had an only rudimentary knowledge of Hindi and nearly no knowledge of Urdu or Awadhi. His incredible attention to detail, from the accents to costumes to scenery, takes you back in time.
It’s easy to think that portraying the sense of movement on-screen in a chess film would be tough. However, in Ray’s capable hands, these concerns fade away, and what unfolds on screen is true art in motion. He skillfully parallels the noblemen’s efforts to play chess peacefully, to that of the game Lord Dalhousie plays with Nawab Wajid Ali Shah to acquire Awadh.
Artistry in motion
Right from the start, Ray’s superb use of silence and pauses attracts a viewer, oblivious to what might otherwise be long and dull segments of the film. With the help of magnificent cinematography and excellent art direction, Satyajit transports us into a fascinating world. It consists of Nawabs, palaces, hookahs, Peshawari shawls, thumris, and everything else that you can imagine from that era. Every frame in this film seems like artwork, with muted colors to evoke a bygone period. The film has a laid-back tone, which is felt mostly due to the color palette utilized.
The Cast and their performance
Of course, we get to see some of the best performances ever seen in Hindi cinema.
The two noblemen are played by Sanjeev Kumar and Syed Jaffrey. Mirza Sajjad Ali, played by Sanjeev Kumar, is the more aggressive of the two buddies, both on and off the chessboard. Whereas Mir Roshan Ali, played by Syed Jaffrey, is the jovial ignoramus, who is blissfully unaware that his wife is having an affair behind his back.
Amjad Khan portrays the Nawab of Awadh, with amazing empathy. Because of his milder inclinations, the Nawab Wajid Ali Shah literally relinquishes his throne without the British forces having to shed a single drop of blood. The speech that he gives to his ministers upon learning of Outram’s plans is the stuff of movie folklore. It is full of anxiety, resistance, as well as a sense of sorrow that he would no longer be able to enjoy the things that gave him the most pleasure.
No figure in Ray’s humanitarian oeuvre is genuinely a villain. Both Nawab Ali and Outram, who are caught in a cultural clash, are shown with nuance and tenderness. The two men strive to rationalize their actions in protracted sequences. Outram comes alive as a man divided between the demands of his conscience and the call of duty.
The Underlying Message in Shatranj Ke Khiladi
We might huff and laugh at the protagonists’ foolishness and naivety. But this movie truly compels you to wonder if these characters are actually portraying us. We are so absorbed in our everyday routines that we hardly notice the bigger picture. Staying ignorant towards many important matters that directly or indirectly impact us, we accept what comes our way and forget to take the initiative for bringing the change. That’s the core message behind this beautiful story. That’s how one knows Premchand and Satyajit as magicians, for showcasing this serious subject with pure artistry.